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date: 17 October 2019


  • John Stevens
  •  and Dennis Libby


During the Middle Ages, an English or Latin song of uniform stanzas beginning with a refrain called a ‘burden’ that is repeated after each stanza. Medieval carols could be on any subject, but were mostly about the Virgin or the Saints of Christmas. In recent centuries the word has usually referred to strophic songs (some with refrains) associated with Christmas, many of them with texts derived from medieval English carols.

The form of the medieval carol is related to continental refrain forms such as the rondeau, virelai and ballade, to the Italian lauda spirituale and to the processional hymn. The surviving music falls into several categories: (i) fragments of apparently popular carols, mostly monophonic; (ii) 15th-century polyphonic carols, represented by nearly 120 compositions; (iii) early Tudor carols by Fayrfax, Browne, Cornysh etc; (iv) courtly-popular carols by Henry VIII and his contemporaries.

The strictly formal definition of the carol needs supplementing, partly because a definition by musico-poetical form inadequately describes a social phenomenon such as the medieval carol. From a social point of view there are at least four major types of carol to be considered: (...

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